It was late evening in the Krakow district of
Kazimierz, and the Strefy Piwa (Beer
Zone) pub was in full swing with midweek revellers. A group of friends were
sharing jokes over a round of drinks and a couple of young men in white work shirts
sat at one of the few tables scattered around the sparse brick interior.
While Strefy Piwa has mainly Polish and
Czech beers on tap -- including an India Pale Ale (IPA) made by Artezan, a small craft brewery near Warsaw -- the
bar also offers a wide range of bottled brews from countries such as the US,
Netherlands and Belgium. One wall of the pub was covered with different
coloured bottle tops from around the world, and a globe sat by the bar,
presumably to help patrons locate the many countries from which the brews
originate. Sitting comfortably with a pint in hand, I listened as the owner
engaged in a lively debate with a local brewer about the quality of the latest
beer on offer.
Beer is a serious topic in Krakow, where a
growing band of enthusiasts are developing a vibrant brewing scene. New microbreweries
are opening across Poland every month, and Krakow is becoming one of the best
places in Europe to sample Polish beers made by producers driven more by their passion
for quality than by building a lucrative large-scale business.
There was a time not so long ago when going
to a typical bar in Poland was an altogether different experience. The small Polish breweries that existed before
World War II were liquidated in the post-war years, and the larger breweries
were nationalised. The bars that remained, hidden away from public view, were dingy
dens of sorrow frequented by hardcore drinkers eager to escape the troubles of
everyday life with little care for their surroundings.
But times have changed. In the early 1990s
with the advent of a free market in Poland, the large national breweries began
selling off their unprofitable assets, which typically included brewing
equipment that could not produce beer on a sufficiently large scale. These
tools of the trade were then bought up by small entrepreneurs who saw the
microbrewery model of the United States as a blueprint for success. At that
time, more than 700,000 people in the US had started making their own beer, leading
to the formation of the 1,600 independent breweries that now operate across the
country. Soon a number of young Poles set up their own operations, travelling
around Europe and to the US in order to learn from those who had recently taken
the same steps.
Poland now has around 100 microbreweries run
by a small core of dedicated enthusiasts who are collaborating to build a growing
demand for craft beers. The Polish
Association of Home Brewers, established in 2010, now has more than 200 members,
and the group organises 15 annual brewing contests around the country and
produces a quarterly newspaper called The Brewer to encourage brewing as a
hobby. In a culture where alcohol was once taken primarily for its “medicinal”
properties, it is no small accomplishment to now see people sniffing, sipping
and vigorously debating the merits of their carefully produced beers.
At the hugely popular House of Beer pub in Krakow’s Old
Town, the lines at the bar were three deep and the din of the crowd drowned out
the sport games that were playing on TV. Over a bottle of citrus-flavoured
Rowing Jack IPA made by Poland’s Ale
Browar near Gdansk, Tomasz Rogaczewski, founder of the Four Sides of Beer website and a judge at
beer festivals across Europe, talked about how the beer scene in Krakow has
evolved. “A few years ago the people who were producing Polish beer had little
knowledge or interest in brewing,” he said. “They were in it purely for the
money. But now we have genuine enthusiasts, willing to help each other as part
of a community dedicated to creating the best quality beers.”
Rogaczewski is busy setting up his own
craft brewery in Krakow and is one of a few young beer makers who conduct tasting
courses. Much like the wine-tasting classes that have long been popular around
the world, students at his classes are taught how to recognise the smell of a
good beer, how to describe its taste and how to pair different types of beers with
food. Courses run once or twice a month at various bars around Krakow and
attract a diverse audience from hardcore enthusiasts to curious novices.
Information about upcoming dates and venues are posted on the Four Sides of Beer website.
In the Omerta
pub in the Kazimierz quarter, Rogaczewski’s claim that he can find a beer to
suit anyone’s taste – even those who have never enjoyed the taste of beer –
seems plausible. The bar has an impressive list of 28 different beers, all
served using the traditional taps found in old-fashioned British pubs. Half of
the beers on offer are international ales while the others are from Polish
brewers, including the imaginatively named light beer Pierwsza Pomoc (First Aid)
from the Pinta brewery.
In a sure sign of Krakow’s growing taste
for artisan beers, an old tram terminus near the Vistula river in the Kazimierz
district has been restored and recently opened as the cavernous 600-seat Stara Zajezdnia restaurant,
with its 40m bar rumoured to be the longest in
Poland. The size of the
restaurant alone suggests a healthy confidence in the market for locally
produced beers. Try a pint of dark toffee-scented Stout, brewed by Spiż brewery, whose
headquarters is based in nearby Katowice.
While the old tram terminus is new on the
scene, CK Browar is Poland’s
oldest microbrewery and the only brewery-restaurant in Krakow. Stepping down from
the busy city streets into CK’s basement-level space, two large copper vats shine
behind the bar. A selection of home-made Polish brews is available, most of
which are based on recipes from when Krakow was under the control
of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1790s to 1918). Try the
CK Jasne (a pale, wheaty beer) or the CK Dunkel Wiezen, a dark beer with a
yeasty flavour. Customers can even order their own 2m-high beer tower complete
with tap, to save them from needing refills.